I fear that episode is going to be a harbinger of ongoing debates about the appropriateness of other elites criticizing Trump. Obviously, individuals have every right to express their opinion. The question that arises is the propriety of certain categories of individuals weighing in. For example, Patrick Healy and Helene Cooper’s story in the New York Times about the queasiness many generals feel about a President Trump is interesting. Given Trump’s statements, there is an obvious tension between the need for civilian control of the military, and the strong norms and codes of conduct ingrained within the military services. So in this instance, the voicing of qualms combined with an unwillingness to go on the record seems prudent.
And then there are the historians.
Beginning with Ken Burns’s Stanford commencement address last month, a group calling itself Historians Against Trump has mounted a petition and a Facebook page replete with videos arguing that Trump is uniquely unqualified to be the president. The petition does not mince words:
Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump….We have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built. This means equipping the public with historical skills and narratives that are “factual, accurate, comprehensible, meaningful, useful, and resistant to cynical manipulators who sell snake oil as historical truth.” When Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination on July 21st, a Grand Old Party born out of the struggle for abolition and justice will have succumbed to snake oil. We are here to say, “No more.” Join us in standing up to Trump — for our history, for our future, and for each other.
This movement has prompted professor Stanley Fish to opine in the New York Times with an essay titled, “Professors, Stop Opining About Trump.” You can guess the theme:
By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.While this disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.
Now it’s worth pausing for a moment here to bask in the rich ironies of Fish calling out other academics for Opining Outside Their Lane.
It’s rich because Fish has written opinion pieces for the New York Times and many other outlets about . . . well, pretty much anything that enters his brain. His pieces range from the sins of publishing the Muhammad cartoons to fretting about how coffee joints ain’t what they used to be. It’s even richer because Fish’s tagline mentions that he’s “a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law” — which elides the fact that he doesn’t have a law degree. Say what you will about the historians who signed the petition, I don’t think any of them are trying to teach history without the necessary degrees.
Now let’s return from that moment of tu quoquery to think about whether Fish’s criticism of his fellow academics is valid. His objection is not in individual academics opining against Trump but a collective of academics weighing in as disciplinary experts. And to be fair, most academic disciplines would agree with Fish — and Max Weber — that there is a distinction between acting as an expert and acting as a citizen. So experts must think very carefully before weighing in on political debates as scholars.
That does not mean, however, that such a move is impossible. As Stuart Kaufman and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson argued a decade ago, there is such a thing as “Weberian activism,” in which scholars can point out that their collective body of knowledge prescribes against the political whims of the day:
Social scientists have the freedom — perhaps even the obligation — to engage in systematic value clarification, pointing out the likely consequences of adopting a particular set of goals and a particular set of means to achieve those goals. Such value-clarification is likely to disappoint ideologues on all sides, as it will refrain from offering context-independent solutions to thorny social and political problems, but it might contribute to the formulation of more nuanced and realistic policies.
As the Historians Against Trump observe in their open letter, Trump’s abuses of history — “against historical analysis and fact” — exceed that of the garden-variety politician. So if historians focus their fire on Trump’s invocation of “America First,” or his defense of Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese during World War II, then they are appropriately deploying their expertise to criticize someone who is as historically uninformed as Trump.
I do hope historians limit their criticisms to such cases, otherwise Fish might have a point. But I suspect that what truly rankles Fish about this effort isn’t the possibility of such transgressions but rather the possibility of citizens treating historians as actual experts with a settled consensus on certain historical facts. The very idea of such norms of empirical validity are an affront to Fish’s postmodernism. Which means that he is the worst possible judge of what other academic disciplines do in response to the vast oceans of ignorance occupied by one Donald J. Trump.
There are proper Weberian constraints in the ways in which academic experts should criticize Donald Trump — but those constraints are not the same as Stanley Fish’s. Academics wading into the 2016 general election should pay close heed to Weber. They can safely ignore Fish.